Why I'm So Proud Of -- And Scared For -- My Teen Working As A Camp Counselor

by Nikkya Hargrove
Originally Published: 
teenager wearing face mask for COVID-19
Morsa Images/Getty

We are just a few days into the summer, and with the whiplash I’m still reeling from (thank you, COVID-19), life must go on as best it can for my three kids. My son, who turned 13 in November, was ready to enjoy his time away from his parents — who want to know way more about his life than he is willing to offer. He was scheduled to attend sleepaway camp for the third year, choir camp for a week, and try his hand at being a counselor-in-training to gain the work experience he will need upon graduation from high school in four years. But our family’s intended summer plans were drastically altered.

The quarantine has taken away so much from our family: our sense of safety as we walk through our community, physically distant from our neighbors, family, friends, and church community. So the late announcement that day camps could resume gave us something to look forward to. Our son would get the opportunity to gain work experience, be outside, and participate in camp — with a twist.

My son is gaining invaluable life experience as he gets up every day, putting on his light blue camp t-shirt with a smile. I never thought I’d see this kind of joy within him, so outwardly expressed. He is on the Autism spectrum and I refuse to let that hold him back in any way.

I never went to camp as a kid, and was hesitant to sign the permission slip giving my son to strangers for a week last summer. He would spend the week in a cabin with six or so other boys and a camp counselor he’d never met. My wife and I paid a ton of money for five days of adventure, for our son to undoubtedly replace his showers with the daily dip in the lake, and test his extremely selective palette with the communal meals made up of veggies picked from the garden on campus.

It was an experience for all of us. For my wife and me, it was a week without our pre-teen’s attitude and a week for him to get to know other people and experience a summer unlike I had ever had. In the end, I wanted this summer camp experience for him. As I drove the hour drive north to pick him up last summer, I worried. I worried he would be scarred for life. I worried he would never want to return to camp. I was fearful that I would never want him to experience camp again. But I was wrong.

When he hopped in our car, before we even left the parking lot, he asked: can I come for longer next summer? I was able to breathe a little easier as I eased our minivan out of the dirt parking lot. Our son was maturing and navigating experiences without his parents.

Granted, we’d spent lots of time (and money) to invest in summer experiences for him over the years. The hope, as we wrote each check and paid 20-somethings to help him navigate various social situations, was money well spent. As he matured and reflected on the summer camp connections he made with his peers over the years, how much he enjoyed the daily swim class, or the archery experience or Friday lunches with the entire group, and the end of season celebration which included music, candy, cake, and a dance-off, my kid became a “camper.”

He asked his last year of camp before he transitioned to more of a service learning kind of camp to be a camp counselor. It was a conversation he wanted to have. For me, it felt very fast; in reality, it was for a few summers that I not only became comfortable with the potential of sending him to sleepaway camp for two weeks, but we all looked forward to this particular summer. And then coronavirus happened. And his two weeks of the sleepaway camp instead turned into nine weeks of real-life work experience as he committed to being a camp counselor for two and a half months. We’d sent him to a special needs camp which ultimately prepared us all for his new role as counselor-in-training.

If there is any silver lining in this pandemic, it is that our son will come out of it with work experience that will help him throughout his life. He will navigate social situations that used to bring him much anxiety and some frustration with more ease. He will gain leadership experience which will help as he transitions this school year into a freshman in high school. Being in charge of others (other than his four-year-old sisters) will give him confidence in knowing that he is heard even if not always listened to.

This is only week number one for him, and I’d just begun to breathe a little easier. And then I learned about Elijah McClain and am again worried. I am worried about my Black son who has Asperger’s. This summer, I hope, will never repeat itself with the worry for our Black sons, for our mental and physical health.

I know summer will never be the same or look the same for my son after his experience as a camp counselor in training. But it will never look the same for his parents either — we will all forever be changed because of this particular summer camp experience, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement.

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